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Piracy: The Reality
Posted on Saturday, February 13 2010 @ 15:45:38 Eastern

Piracy has been with us for centuries. True pirates: the ones who cannot be mixed at the aesthetic level with zombies, ninjas or robots terrorised the high seas. They pillaged and took whatever they wanted because they were fucking pirates. Captain Jack Sparrow may have had the talk and he certainly had the swagger but he wasn’t in the same league as Blackbeard and in a further bastardization of the term we have copyright infringers. Colloquially (and puzzlingly) referred to as pirates, these often pasty individuals spend their days maxing out their rapidshare accounts by downloading things they may never get around to viewing/listening to.

Piracy is, to say the least, frowned upon by the powerhouses that masquerade as record labels and publishers and they waste absolutely no time at all in letting the legal purchaser of their wares know that PIRACY IS A CRIME. This scaremongering may be different elsewhere but in the UK it takes the form of this video. You’ll notice a prominent message in this short which graces the data layer of every single god damn DVD sold legitimately; you wouldn’t steal a *blank* so you wouldn’t download a film. While I agree with the sentiment (paying for what you get) the vehicle used to convey this message is not just incorrect, it’s an out and out fabrication, which is unfortunate since all it will do is highlight the desperation of studios to get every drop possible out of their customers.

Record and movie studios have a long and bloody history of waging war with the pirates. From tackling the possibly immortal Pirate Bay to taking on the incredibly harmful single mothers they seem to have picked their targets based on exactly how much media coverage they will be afforded. It should be noted that the aforementioned single mother had a starting fine of $1.92 million for downloading 24 songs which was cut to the slightly more reasonable $54,000; presumably because fifty-odd grand is the sort of thing one finds in an old coat.

Let’s not get too complacent directing all animosity towards the movie and music corporations since child friendly Nintendo is getting in on the act now by fining one guy $1.5 million for being the first to upload the New Super Mario Bros. game to a torrent site. Of course the guy was in the wrong by doing this; so was the mother in the link above by downloading (and allowing the upload of) the 24 songs, but were they million dollar wrong?

The thinking behind these exorbitant fines is no doubt the same idea behind sending the first child to fling a piece of food across the cafeteria to the headmaster’s office: to make an example and dissuade others from following suit. The problem is not only that it doesn’t work (a recent study suggests 99% of BitTorrent downloads are illegal, up from 95% last year) but also that the punishment is immensely disproportionate to the crime. Why would the millions of copyright infringers out there care about one person being fined into bankruptcy and why would that lone individual see the difference between $100,000 and $1,000,000 on their minimum wage job?

Not only do the fines appear to have no effect on pirate constitution, removing protection seems to help for the likes of Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails. Of course this wouldn’t work for everything but the unusual approaches by these artists do demonstrate that hitting pirates with a proverbial sledgehammer isn’t the only response.

One man being fined more money than many people spend on a house isn’t going to act as a deterrent; it will only ruin his life and make Nintendo the bad guy. After all, what’s $1.5 mil to the company who owns the ubiquitous Wii? While the man did break the law and does deserve to be punished this writer does not understand why he is the recipient of a punishment that is arguably harsher than those imposed on thieves and burglars who directly have an emotional impact on their victims.

Another issue is whether the 30 thousand people who downloaded the iso (1,500,000 / 50) – assuming that is indeed how the fine was worked out – would have bought the game legally if they had not been presented with a download. I would have to say that a large proportion would not have and so would not have contributed anything to Nintendo.

A much more beneficial option could be a form of community service. Instead of forcing someone into financial destitution why not force them to complete some sort of labour for the respective company? The expert coder who broke Spore’s copy-protection could be put to use writing more efficient (and less invasive) DRM, the guy who ripped Mario’s iso could read and reply to generic emails and the young mother could fetch tea for upcoming artists.

Piracy is an ongoing problem and current methods of stopping it are clearly not working; perhaps a paradigm shift is in order, but how likely is that?

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